By Monica Bhide, "Finger Food,"May/June 2011
The disdain on my guest's face radiated such strong contempt it could have made the yogurt on the dining room table curdle. Her arms were folded across her chest, her head tilted to one side and her eyes scrutinized my every move.
"You still eat with your hands?" she asked with much scorn as she watched me take a small piece of Indian griddle bread, dip it into a luscious red lentil curry and place it gently in my mouth.
Before I could answer, the tirade began. The speaker, a young Indian woman, was a friend. I would have forgiven the lecture about cleanliness, lack of culture, lack of table etiquette and my total disregard for eating "that way" in front of my children, if she too had not been of Indian origin. While I don't expect people from other cultures to comprehend why we do things a certain way, to have someone from your own ethnicity show such ignorance made my fingers crunch up into a fist.
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Food is such an intimate experience, even more so than sex. Everything we put in our mouth touches our insides, affects how we grow, affects how we age, affects how we behave. It defines who we are. And yet, there is such an aversion in many Western cultures to "touching it."
When I was a child, my family and almost all our friends ate with our fingers. And we cooked with our hands, by andaza—estimation. My mother would dip her clean, cupped fingers into the lentil or the rice jar and pick one "moothi" (handful) of the ingredient per person before adding it to her pot. The spices were measured in jutkis (pinches) and pinched with her fingers before adding to the pot. We had no measuring cups, no teaspoons or tablespoons and definitely no weighing scales. And no, not because we were poor. The eggplant was held up in the palm to check its weight; we touched the mango to the nose to smell for freshness.
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Once the vegetables and lentils were cooked, my mother could get into kneading the dough for the bread. Her fingers deftly worked the flour to release its magic and bind it into a mystical pile that would later, when kissed by fire, produce bread worth killing for. My grandmother would take the bread off the fire, still scorching hot, and crush it between the palms of her hands before serving it to the kids. She said it softened the bread; I thought it added love.
The point of this is not whether the measures were right (they were), the point is that the food was constantly in human contact. Mint and cilantro leaves, when crushed on a granite sil batta (like a large mortar and pestle), have a different consistency and taste than when they are ground in a food processor. Even to this day many cooks will tell you that using electrical appliances changes the way food tastes. It is like some ancient cultures believe that if someone takes a photo of you, they take away a piece of your spirit.
Don't get me wrong, I use electrical appliances, but there is a widely held belief in India that good food is the result of "good hands." The energy of the hands is transferred to the foods that are being prepared. Two perfectly capable cooks can use the same ingredients to prepare the same dishes and yet, one may taste better than the other. You may think it is because of cooking technique. I beg to differ. Food prepared with the energy of love tastes better.
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In ancient India, it was also believed that touching food with your fingers and then putting it in your mouth brought forth the right digestive fluids to help you eat. Eating with your hands makes you aware of what is going in your mouth. It makes eating less of a mindless chore and more of an experience where your presence is required. I have no evidence to prove my next statement except I stand behind it 100 percent: food eaten with your hands tastes better.
I have taught my kids to eat with their hands. And I am proud of that. Yes, when we eat out, they can use forks and knives and chopsticks better than I can. But at home, we eat as we desire, with love and abandon and with clean, washed hands.
My friend's tirade came to an end: "Are you listening? Have you heard a word I have said?"
I looked up at her. The Indian inside me wanted to scream. The hostess inside me needed to be polite. "Eating Indian food with a fork and knife, I have read," I said as graciously as I could, "is like trying to make love through an interpreter."
Despite herself she laughed, and picked up her fork and knife. The rest of us ate with our hands. In the end, I licked my fingers for good measure.
Monica Bhide's latest cookbook is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster, 2009). She lives in Washington, D.C.